Myth #9. Asking questions is easy. Well, maybe for some people, but not for me. To have a decent discussion, the teacher must ask questions. And it’s certainly easy enough to ask questions, but asking good questions is hard. Very hard. In fact, I sometimes spend more time thinking of two or three really good questions than I spend on the rest of the lesson. In actuality, if you have just one really good question, you’ve got your lesson prepared.
But here’s the problem, questions aren’t any good if they’re too easy or if they’re too hard. And the gap between the two is pretty thin. It’s hard to squeeze in there. So here are some mistakes I’ve made you may want to avoid–
- Questions that are too easy. Some teachers think they are getting discussion just because the class is talking, and so they ask ridiculously simple questions, usually repeating what was just read: “So Jesus said we shouldn’t criticize the what? in our brother’s eye?” Sorry, but the expected response “speck” isn’t going to lead to life-changing insights. The class will find the question insulting. Someone will try to think of a smart answer. More likely, they’ll just sit their silently, responding to your stupid question with very appropriate passive aggression.
- Questions that are too hard. “So what does Paul really mean by ‘predestination’?” Now the class thinks you didn’t bother to prepare, because it’s your job to answer questions like that.
- Questions that risk embarrassment to the person answering. I used to be the master of this one. I’d prepare for hours and hours, read and read, and come up with a just ever-so-brilliant novel interpretation of a passage. I’d then ask the class what they think the passage means, and then I’d cleverly demonstrate their error and prove my brilliant new theory. Not surprisingly, the class hated answering my questions!
- Questions that call for facts rather than reflection. “What town is three kilometers north of Jerusalem?” may not be easy, but it’s still awful. It doesn’t initiate a conversation or lead to anything but raw data. You weren’t picked to be a tester. You’re supposed to be a teacher.
- Questions likely to be answered wrong. Now, any question at all can be answered wrong! But don’t tempt fate. Think of it this way: one of the hardest situations for a teacher is dealing with a perfectly awful answer from a student, especially a visitor. When the student says, “Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene,” you can’t just say, “Yes, he was” and move on. Nor can you jump down his throat for his blasphemy. Just as they teach lawyers, don’t ask a question unless you have a pretty good sense of what the answer is going to be.
Now, after several years of asking really bad questions, I can make some suggestions–
- Depersonalize hard questions. If you plan to disprove conventional wisdom (the mark of an excellent teacher), then don’t ask a student to stand up and take the conventional position. Then you’ve made the question personal. Rather, ask, “What are some of the traditional teachings as to what the Holy Spirit does in a Christian? What have you heard taught?” Now, this approach allows the class to tell what they’ve heard, so you can be sure to cover the various theories that concern them. And it gives you a baseline of theories to test and discuss–all without asking anyone to take a public position and so risk being embarrassed once you give the “right” answer.
- Ask the class for examples from their lives. They can never be wrong, and they will often share powerful, life-changing experiences. The class members are drawn closer together by the intimacy of shared personal experience. “The author of the book says forgiving benefits the forgiver more than the person forgiven. Have you ever had that experience?”
- Make a list on the board. Be sure there are several possible responses. “What are some ways in which Christian living is like light?” There are lots of possible answers, and people enjoy seeing their ideas written on the board. Once you’ve made your list, you can compare the possible answers to the context of the passage and try to see which ones come closest to the intended meaning.
- Play Socrates. Socratic teaching has been around for a long time and can be powerfully effective, but it’s hard to do. You have to plan the sequence of questions, and carefully avoid making the students look bad. And many topics aren’t suitable. And not every class likes to be taught this way! “Paul says in Romans 8:1 that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. Let’s imagine that he means it, perfectly literally. If this is true–really and truly true–then will any Christians go to hell?” Well, that’s perhaps not a great example, but it works in some classes.
- Ask the question twice. One way to encourage answers is to ask the question in a way that let’s the class absorb the question. If you can ask it twice in two different ways, more people will get it on the first try. People will have more time to process.
- Avoid waiting too long on an answer. The rule is that the class can’t bear 30 seconds of silence, and so if you wait long enough, they’ll finally answer. That’s true. I’ve proven it many times. But it also means you are leading an unbearable class. If the class is slow to respond, talk over the silence in a way that lets them think a bit longer. Or rephrase the question. Or simplify the question. Or give them a hint (without condescending). Or answer it. They’ll appreciate not being made miserable. Remember, discussion is not essential to a good class.
I guess the point is that the Golden Rule applies in teaching just like everywhere else.
Other common errors:
Asking outsized questions. That is, asking a question whose answer may have strong consequences for the students– five minutes before the class is over. This leads to either frustration and turmoil, or to a sense that the question was not really open for discussion at all.
Leading or slanted questions. This is not a problem so much when we are seeking answers of hard fact. (“Were the lepers healed before they saw the priest or afterward?”) But when we ask leading questions which require conclusions, we may telegraph the “correct” answer and slant the discussion unecessarily. “Where do the denominations get the idea that it’s okay for a woman to speak at church?” “Is it appropriate to teach believers that they must give on the first day of the week, or can people just do whatever they want?” Too often, what might sound like a Socratic question is in fact not intended to elicit information at all. It merely sets up a non-negotiable position and dares a student to take it on.
A good rule of thumb: never ask questions when you don’t really want to consider something you might not have fully thought out. Asking your students questions without inviting real input or discussion has a name which every schoolchild knows: it’s called a TEST.